In Gala-Salad Program, Orchestra Dishes Up Return To Concert Life

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Otto Tausk and two harpists demonstrating a moment from Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie fantastique.” (Photos by Matthew Baird)

VANCOUVER — Like orchestras all over the continent, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra began what it hopes will be its post-COVID 2021-22 season Sept. 18-19 with a pair of special concerts back in its home base, the Orpheum Theatre. The program, jauntily called “We’re Back! Gala Performance,” was a mixed bag: “gala” first half, with lots of this and that, followed by Tchaikovsky’s ubiquitous Fifth Symphony, all under the baton of VSO music director Otto Tausk.

The last year and a half has not been easy. Though Vancouver was never under mandated lockdown, public events for the VSO ground to a halt in March 2020, right in the middle of a Beethoven Festival. While the city didn’t lock down, Canada did: Border restrictions were the order of the day, and imported soloists and conductors were unable to easily enter the country to perform. Tausk, who resides in the Netherlands, made multiple visits requiring extensive quarantine time, but he was by no means able to continue to deepen his bond with the orchestra he took over in the fall of 2018 in anything approximating a normal manner.

Dennis Thomas, chair of the VSO’s Indigenous Council

To keep the home fires burning (and to keep musicians employed), the VSO tried a “something for everyone” initiative, featuring streamed concerts with available forces and within COVID-era restrictions and precautions. Some worked, others didn’t. But in the optimistic days before Western Canada’s fourth wave gathered momentum, the VSO started to make plans: There would be a return to in-person concerts, even if that entailed half-capacity houses, compulsory masking, and, as it turned out, vaccination passports.

On Sept. 18, many listeners could be forgiven conflicting emotions: joy at hearing live music and a positive response to British Columbia’s mandatory vaccination passport scheme (introduced just five days earlier), but also a measure of trepidation about the safety of large public gatherings. One might argue that the musical offerings for the evening were conflicted as well. The extended first half of the program consisted of short works accompanied by a plethora of speeches (including a letter from the Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, something of a local hero to many for her measured approach to our health crisis) — all perfectly well meaning but ultimately adding up to too much talk and not enough music.

As is often the case in Canada these days, the evening kicked off with an acknowledgment that modern Vancouver occupies ancestral indigenous lands; a welcome and the performance of a traditional song by Dennis Thomas, chair of the VSO’s Indigenous Council, made an apt change from the national anthem. An insubstantial curtain raiser, Yatra by Sri Lankan-born Canadian composer Dinuk Wijeratne, was over before it began, followed by a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture.

With a certain amount of time consumed by stage resetting, Tausk explained that he wanted us to hear a single movement from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, “Un bal.” And to best appreciate the two harp parts, platforms and harps were brought to the front of the stage. The VSO’s concertmaster, Nicholas Wright, kept the French connection going with the saccharine “Meditation” from Massenet’s Thaïs. Wright did a fine job, for what it’s worth.

Next came another token Canadian contemporary piece, Innenohr by Odawa First Nation composer Barbara Assiginaak. Commissioned by the Calgary Philharmonic as one of those contemporary musings on works from the traditional canon, Assiginaak quarried some of her material from Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The right piece at the wrong time? Maybe. Or maybe just not one of Assiginaak’s best works. The effect was underwhelming.

As if to get back to the festive spirit of “Welcome Back!,” a pair of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances ended the extended first half. Making the most of this programming dog’s breakfast, Tausk gamely intimated that it was a sort of Coming Attractions for the season ahead — as good a spin as could possibly be put on the proceedings.

Attendance for the opening concert was capped at 50% capacity.

Given that this was a special program for a non-subscription audience, the choice of Tchaikovsky to end the evening could have been seen as pragmatic. Or cynical. (That the crowd broke into applause in the middle of the second movement demonstrated that this wasn’t the usual VSO mainstream audience.) All that notwithstanding, Tausk’s reading of the old warhorse was impressive. Regular VSO fans know Tausk has a way of re-thinking over-familiar works and making us hear them with fresh enthusiasm. And he has a particular flair for Russian repertoire.

Indeed, this was a memorable reading: There was nothing predictable about the way Tausk negotiated Tchaikovsky’s mood swings and febrile climaxes, and nothing maudlin or cheap about how he achieved his effects either. The orchestra was with him at every step, exuberantly buying into the magic that unfolded. It was all the more impressive given that this was their first time in many months functioning together as a full orchestral ensemble. If only serving notice that real orchestral repertoire with all its scope and grandeur is back on the menu, “Welcome Back!” served its purpose.